Rosie Kenyon | Marketing Account Director
Poor Pepsi. You have got to feel a little sorry for them. Not in living memory has an advert failed so spectacularly, as their latest ‘protest’ themed campaign, attracting an onslaught of media attention for all the wrong reasons.
Car crash doesn’t quite cut it. It’s almost painful to watch and once you’ve witnessed it, it can never be unseen, leaving the world reaching for the sick bucket and wishing that someone, somewhere had invented bleach for the eyes.
But to be fair to Pepsi, they pulled the advert and apologised almost instantly, going on to brave a global backlash and suffer ridicule the world over. The media attention even sent their unsuspecting star, Kendall Jenner, into (thankfully temporary) hiding.
The bitter taste of a failed international campaign is sure to stick around for some time and probably have those competitive Coca-Cola execs gleefully gloating at the sheer embarrassment of it all.
But missing the mark happens all the time in marketing and like all challenges, the main thing is to make sure that you learn something valuable from it.
Now that all the ‘fizz’ has settled down, let’s conduct a quick post-mortem on the advert that aimed to shake things up, but ultimately left the world feeling a bit flat.
Here are seven ways we think Pepsi could have saved their advert and created something genuinely positive.
1) ACTUALLY, HAVE A CAUSE TO SUPPORT
There’s so much to dislike about this advert that it’s hard to pin one single thing down. Watching it, you get the sense that Pepsi were trying to slyly capitalise on the rallying sentiment behind recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘Muslim Ban’ protests.
If this is the case, they should have tried harder, either by overtly supporting the movement or selecting another cause altogether. Perhaps one is close to their hearts or better still, closely aligned with their brand values. Pepsi are a truly global company and they have the power to lend real support to important causes. In this context, the advert feels like such a missed opportunity.
2) BE REAL WHEN IT COUNTS
Another overarching problem is the falseness of it all. People hate cheap sentiment and this ad is full of it. The powerfully generic placards espousing ‘love’ and ‘peace’ and (worse of all) asking people to ‘join the conversation’ – but not bothering to specify which one.
Add to that the suspiciously attractive crowds of thoroughly creative twenty somethings, being pretty and edgy together, whilst protesting nothing at all. They’re angry. Angry enough to protest, but not angry enough to, you know, look upset. Because sad and angry faces don’t sell cola.
Then there’s the most unthreatening and impossibly handsome police line-up ever. If you didn’t know better you’d swear they were about to whip off their Velcro trousers, slap on the baby lotion and gyrate in unison to ‘The Full Monty’ (or is that just us?).
To cap it all off, Pepsi leave people with the slightly ominous slogan of ‘LIVE… FOR NOW’. But aside from all this mockery, the cardinal sin is clear to all. Don’t co-opt protest imagery for profit. It cheapens genuine causes, turns people’s passion for justice into a cheesy commodity and attempts to soda on the same level as fighting against atrocities or discrimination.
3) PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS
Now Pepsi has got some pretty deep pockets and there’s no end of real-life causes that they could and should support. Their foundation does incredible work and they could have built upon that. Combating world hunger seems spot on for them. Aid for war torn families from Syria is another worthy cause. They could even start a movement or another charity of their own. If their campaign was actually related to a strong social message and actively worked to help the cause in some way, much of the backlash and ridicule could have been avoided.
4) PICK A MORE APPROPRIATE AMBASADOR
Don’t get us wrong, Kendall Jenner seems like a lovely young woman and the problem with the advert is the concept, not the cast. However, since advertising began, brands have hired hot young things to hock their products and that’s come to be expected. But rather than using a star’s celebrity to help sell soda, Pepsi may have been smarter to lend their profile to a genuine up-and-coming activist, someone with something important to say.
The frustrating thing is that there are so many out there, just look at the work of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Malala Yousafzai, and Thione Niang. These young activists are effortlessly cool, would look great on a poster and they struggle to get their voice heard. Pepsi could have been the international megaphone they deserve.
5) DO SOMETHING REVOLUTIONARY
If Pepsi wanted to align their product with peace, love and revolution, they could have created something genuinely revolutionary.
Remember the Cola Wars? When Pepsi battled Coca-Cola, in that taste test of the 90s? Well, picture the media furore if these two cola giants hooked up on a joint campaign to highlight and support a real global cause.
The message? Peace and unity can happen, even in the most unlikely situations and working together for the good of all is the right thing to do.
Okay, we know it’s unlikely to happen, but such a bold move would be ground breaking; it could even change the way people think about competing brands and sales of both beverages would probably skyrocket.
Now we’re not saying world peace is a TV advert away, far from it. But brands and commercials do have the power to change the way people see and think about the world. Can you imagine Pepsi and Coca-Cola working together as a force for good? Now that would be refreshing.
6) KNOW YOUR MARKET (OR AT LEAST TEST IT)
When it’s all said and done, it’s easy to criticise and when it comes to marketing, everyone is an expert. But the most surprising thing about Pepsi’s latest advert is that it actually made it to our screens at all. It’s inconceivable that this ad didn’t go through rigorous market testing, but all the evidence suggests the contrary.
Anyone who works in marketing today will tell you that what audiences want, especially millennials, is authenticity. They’re looking for brands to mean what they say, to be genuinely ethical and not to condescend or pander to their beliefs.
If Pepsi’s in-house marketing team had taken a little more care at the testing stage they could have re-cut the ad to something more palatable and less faux political or centred the campaign around a social issue their consumers care about.
To be fair to Pepsi, there are some great shots in there, the music is memorable and engaging and there’s nothing offensive about showing young people partying and enjoying soda together. But if you haven’t got the desire to make your protest theme credible, why bother using it at all?
7) (MOST IMPORTANTLY) DON’T DO IT YOURSELF, ASK THE EXPERTS
When videos or adverts are produced by in-house teams, there is a danger of excessive fawning over the brand. Outsourcing videos helps to maintain clarity on the objectives and the audience. Disclaimer here, we provide this – with a video team who work to create effective videos; challenging the brand and using insights to make sure communication works. The report from industry magazine, Campaign, was damning.
“The ad, created by Pepsi’s in-house agency, the Creators League Studio, sparked massive and instant outrage when it appeared online on Tuesday. With its images of smiling protestors, multi-ethnic artists and a white reality TV star who saves the day, the ad struck critics as a lazy attempt to co-opt recent protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March on Washington.”
To round things up:
At best this Pepsi advert is misguided, at worst it’s wholly offensive. But Pepsi isn’t the first company to make a bad advert and they won’t be the last. But we hope that they have learnt a thing or two in this process.
Maybe it was all a ploy, an attempt to get people talking about Pepsi? Maybe the ad was a genius social campaign, people are talking about it and everyone’s seen it after all. Maybe sales will spike despite all the controversy.
Whatever the outcome, this ad will likely be a case study for marketers for years to come, on the perils of disingenuous marketing and the danger of exploiting societal issues to increase your bottom line.
And perhaps most tellingly, trying to do things yourself rather than trusting in experts to create credible and compelling video content.